The end of the year gives us all a reason to look back, and take stock.
As I was reflecting on my work in health communication this year, I saw a pattern I thought I’d share with you. It’s about a commonality in many of the conversations I’ve had, that might be helpful to you. No matter what your field or role, no matter what kind of health communication you do.
Starting with the status quo
Health communication is an interdisciplinary field, so I am offering some tools from my disciplinary background.
Namely, I have been adapting tools and concepts from literacy studies and educational research for application in health and health care. I have worked collaboratively across sectors, disciplines, and professions. With patients, clinicians, administrators, researchers, medical educators, public health professionals, business owners, software developers, professional organizations.
Hey, this company is called Health Communication Partners for a reason!
And over the years I’ve had (and keep having) all sorts of conversations. In these conversations, I usually ask a variation on this one question:
When it comes to communication, what’s wrong with the status quo?”
As you might imagine, I’ve had lots of people respond. (I’m a big fan of paying attention to what people know and what matters to them.) And I’ve learned a few things.
I have learned that, across and within fields and sectors, that no matter what your job has to do with health communication, you want your words to make a difference.
You want your words to matter.
Often, people I’m talking to feel that their communication isn’t working. Something’s going wrong, or they aren’t making the difference they want to.
So, I’m going to share one common pattern across all the advice I share. One way you can improve your health communication, right now.
It’s difficult to give hard and fast rules, because for each idea I’m about to share, someone out there will be the exception.
But in general, I tend to ask people to ‘look both ways.’ Here’s what I mean by that.
The first way is inside. Look inward at the assumptions you’re making about your audience.
This is important because in communication, people are interacting with each other and with their environment. This holds for most interactions with language – written, videos, ads on your favorite streaming service, etc. we’re coming from different places, we stand in different places. Economically, politically, culturally, so many ways. And all of these make a difference to how we use language, and how it’s used on us.
Additionally, everyone has different knowledge, attitudes and beliefs about the health issues at hand. Because our ideas of health, what it means to be healthy, and what it means to live a good life (as you know) are culturally mediated.
Questions to consider:
- What assumptions are you making about this person or group of people?
- What are you expecting someone knows, values, has, and can do in order to interact with you?
- How would this interaction be different if you had a different set of assumptions about them?
The other way to look is out, to the systems level.
I have some experience identifying organizational factors which can undermine collaboration and communication. So when I’m working with people, and writing for this site, and podcasting, I try to keep in mind collective beliefs, institutional practices, and political pressures. I believe it is possible and necessary to connect individual interactions to larger issues of autonomy, shared decision-making, efficiency, inequality, and much more.
Questions to consider:
- What kinds of larger systems forces are at work when you’re communicating?
- What constraints are around your communication?
- Are you interested in changing or shifting any of these constraints by working along with some of your colleagues?
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Look both ways
I invite you to try to see your communication this way for a moment.
The purpose of this short piece—and Health Communication Partners overall–is to help you improve your communication with all patients or clients. No matter your context, no matter your field, no matter your role.
One way is through focusing on your own language use. That is, on the actual words, images and multimedia you use to communicate.
As people working in health systems, businesses, universities, nonprofits, or departments of health, you have a position of some power in health-related conversations, actions, and interactions. When you are acting in a professional capacity, you use your language to contribute to health and wellness in various ways. Perhaps it’s speaking to a patient or client, drafting a campaign, or conducting research.
I seek to help you view communication strategically, in an approach based on decades of research, that will allow you to make adjustments and connections according to your professional judgement. Because as professionals working in health, healthcare, and public health, the language you use around health matters.